Megan-Clyfford Still Paper

Megan McGrain

ARTH 3539


Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still was one of the first generation painters to greatly influence abstract expressionism, a movement that came promptly after the second world war. This movement, which is now called “Abstract Expressionism”, is a demonstrative and abstract form of painting that the world had not seen before. Still, was of this generation of painters striving for a new wave of art, one that would separate itself from the dreary past of the 1930s and 1940s, and from the art of its European neighbors.

Clyfford Still was born in 1904 at the turn of the century, in North Dakota but spend most of his childhood in Washington. Still studied humanities and the arts in the early 1930s, this period being in the midst of the great depression after the stock crash of 1929. The Great depression had a substantial influence on artist’s work in the United States. From this era of the 1930’s I want to use Clyfford Still’s piece from 1935, the beginning of his artistic career and experimentations with abstractions (see Image 1). This piece also was involved in Clyfford’s first solo gallery exhibition in the early 1943. The show was at the San Francisco museum of art, and Still didn’t have another show until the 1960s in Pennsylvania.

When I visited this piece at the Clyfford Still museum, I was intrigued by this piece in the room because of its strange formality and its somber emotional undertones. Considering the time period, this appropriation of the figures with ribs showing, and hollow chests is a clear symbol of the hunger and difficult state of  America at this time. Still uses a very expressive style of painting and fluidity to show the figures as people, but keeps them anonymous. This work foreshadows his later more abstract works with less of a coherent message.

The second piece that spoke to me at the Clyfford Still museum was his piece in 1952, composed of red and orange paints (see image 2). In this piece we can see Still disregarding the human form as the focus of his pieces anymore. We see the simplification of the color palate into just red and orange. When I viewed this piece I tried to make some sense of the red abstraction that the eye is drawn to, but struggled to identity the form.

During the time of this painting Still had moved far away from using clear human forms, but you can still see the verticality that he uses in his works that are often interpreted as figures. This use of verticality in Still’s work was a common theme of the representation of living and death, for when we are alive we are vertical, not until we die do we become perminately horizontal. By using this technique, we can gather a feeling of life and emotion from this piece.

In the 1950s there was a desire by the artists to reform the way people viewed art. This desire came from the ending of the World War 2 era, that began in 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The terrible acts of the war had shaken up the lives of American citizens and the artists as well. In response, artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were artists alongside Clyfford Still that worked to create a new breed of artistic experience, and succeeded in doing so. Art was now invloving the viewer through interaction, and individual interpretation, which was radically different than the works coming out of Europe at this time. This was the time of the birthplace of Abstract Expressionism in New York, making it the center of the western art world.

The third piece that I would like to talk about from the Clyfford Still series is the painting from 1974, of black and white called PH-929 (see image 3). The 1970s were the last decade of paintings from Still, and at this point his style of abstract expressionism had been rendered to his personal liking. This painting made by Stills is a demonstration of complete abstraction, at the end of his career we can see the evolution of his work to be completely devoid of the figure. When we look at this painting we see contrasts, Still once described his work:  “I never wanted color to be color. I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse together into a living spirit.”

This “living spirit” that Still is alluding to is ever-present in this piece in black and white. We see Still’s personally made paints used within his control to create a piece that has a life of its own. The piece twists and turns into a chaotic ensemble of texture and emotion, with few streaks of color almost hidden behind such bold splotches of black and white. This work truly does have a living spirit.

The art of Clyfford Still is a living and breathing show of artistic development within the era of abstract expressionism. Each room gives the viewer a glimpse of an era of Still’s work, the artistic development of his lifetime and his contributions to the art world. We can see the development of abstraction through his early works while the figure is still prominent, to the middle works when the figure is represented in verticality, and then lastly the final works involving no figure and pure abstractions. The pigments of paint and the viewer work as one experience, the experience of abstract expressionism that changed the art world drastically.

After the time of Still’s death, in his estate there were 2,400 artworks left behind, including 800 paintings. Still had requested that his works were to be donated to a city that would house his works perminately, and this was accomplished in 2004 when Denver, Colorado was chosen as this location. The museum officially opened in November of 2011, which would be the first time people have gotten to experience his artwork in nearly 25 years. This is one of the most complete bodies of work of any artist to date, it has been estimated at 94% of Clyfford Still’s total works. Still’s collection is a preservation of an era of expressionism and exploration, we can see his progressions and influences through each room of the museum and we can feel his passion for the works he created while walking among the pieces.

3 Responses

  1. I think it is amazing that Clyfford Still was able to produce thousands of paintings but hardly shared them with anyone! I’m certainly not the biggest fan of abstract expressionism, but as a historical shift in the production of art, it is pretty amazing! It’s a gift that we are part of the first generation to experience such a collection of his work! I’m curious what is your inner reaction to Still’s work and abstract expressionism in general??

  2. I chose to write about the same pieces as you, PH-929 and think the phrase “living spirit” sums it up perfectly. When I saw this work in person I couldn’t get over how much movement and almost dancing undulation was happening on the surface of the canvas. I think Still’s inclusion of the small stripes of color really aid in the spirited emotion of the piece. I think the unexpected swatches of color add an element of personality to the painting and make it seem as if the thin lines of color are trying to dance and dart through the swirling sea of black and white and texture.

  3. I loved how you described the piece PH-929. I also saw the chaos and emotion in this painting. I also agree with the comment above how the painting was almost dancing on the canvas. I think this happens because of the sharp lines and the color that Still chose.

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